Understanding clerical sex abuse of children: the importance of perspective
The trial of John J. Geoghan, a former priest of the Archdiocese of Boston who is alleged to have molested more than 100 children, has been a distressing reminder that sexual abuse is committed by priests. It has also been a goad to action. Under pressure from the media and, in turn, civil authorities, the archdiocese has turned over to district attorneys the names of other priests against whom accusations have been made and has instituted a zero-tolerance policy with respect to future accusations. In doing so, it has served as a model for dioceses from Manchester, N.H., to Los Angeles, Calif. It has been a trying time for everyone involved and a test of faith for some, and served this Lent as a desert few of us would choose to enter but into which the church has been led.
Yet under the press of crisis, perspective has been compromised at points. Some in the media have suggested that clerical celibacy and the particular culture that it engenders is the underlying disorder, of which sexual abuse is but the most egregious symptom. Others, in Rome and at the Vatican, have been quoted as saying that this is an American problem or that it is evidence that a homosexual orientation is incompatible with the ordained priesthood. While the temptation to fix blame is understandable, yielding to it in these ways serves no good purpose and can distract from the need to understand and remedy a crisis that has caused untold suffering to victims and that threatens the lived experience of the priesthood. It may be more helpful, therefore, to understand the sexual abuse of children by priests within the broader context of child victimization, to measure the American experience against the experience of the church elsewhere and to make important and informed distinctions in the delicate and complex matter of sexual orientation.
The Broader Context of Sexual Abuse of Children
One of the largest and most scientifically reputable studies of human sexuality was conducted by Edward O. Laumann, John H. Gagnon, Robert T. Michael and Stuart Michaels and published by the University of Chicago Press in 1994 as The Social Organization of Sexuality. Based on interviews and surveys of 3,432 American adults, it covers the gamut of sexual behaviors and experiences and is now generally regarded as a standard reference.
What Laumann and his colleagues discovered is that sexual abuse of children is disturbingly common: 17 percent of women and 12 percent of men report that they were abused before they reached puberty by an adolescent or adult, and the majority of them reported that the abuse was repeated. Girls were most at risk of being abused by adult men and adolescent males, while boys stood a greater risk from adolescent women, followed by adolescent males and men. What girls and boys share is a heightened risk of being abused by someone known to them. Only 7 percent reported being abused by a stranger, while 52 percent reported abuse by a relative and 29 percent by a family friend.
The effects of abuse by a priest, as by a parent, sibling or babysitter, are the more serious because of the breach of trust they involve.
This research has two implications for understanding the sexual abuse of children by priests. First, abuse by priests is a subset of a much larger and pervasive problem of child victimization. It is unlikely, therefore, that clerical celibacy itself is a causative factor, when the vast majority of children who are abused are abused by those who are not priests. Second, priest abusers are likely to fit the pattern of those who abuse generally: they are known, trusted and familiar figures in the lives of the children they abuse. This suggests that the effects of abuse by a priest, as by a parent, sibling or babysitter, are the more serious because of the breach of trust they involve, and that perhaps for some priest abusers the priesthood is attractive precisely because it ensures relatively unfettered access to children, as does teaching, coaching and parenting. In effect, what distinguishes abusers of children is that they abuse, not specifically the fact that they are priests, parents or coaches.
The American Experience
The publicity that has surrounded the sexual abuse of children by priests in the United States, and to a lesser extent in Ireland, Australia and Great Britain, might lead one to suspect that if it is not an American problem per se, it is certainly one that has greater relevance for the English-speaking world. Research suggests, however, that the sexual abuse of children by priests is a problem for the church everywhere. Indeed, what may differentiate one local experience from another is not the fact of clerical abuse but how prepared superiors are to respond to it appropriately.
Last summer I conducted a survey of 81 religious superiors of a major clerical order, among them curial officials, provincials, vicars and formators. The vast majority (83 percent) of North American superiors were aware of accusations of sexual abuse against one of their priests, but so too were 43 percent of the superiors in Central America and the Caribbean, and approximately a third of the superiors in Africa, Asia/Pacific, Europe and South America. It could well be the case, therefore, that the North American experience differs from experience elsewhere more by degree than direction. If so, it might suggest that where policies and procedures for responding to allegations are not yet in place, the church would do well to develop them and so ensure that victims, the accused and the church itself will be cared for in the best way possible.
It could well be the case that the North American experience differs from experience elsewhere more by degree than direction.
Two related findings are also of interest. First, in every region of the world except North America, superiors were more likely to be aware of sexual misconduct by a priest with an adult than they were of misconduct with a child; in North America, superiors were as likely to be aware of one as the other. Second, superiors everywhere are aware that some of their brother priests and religious were victims of sexual abuse as a child. Yet even here, policy lags behind knowledge. Relatively few superiors can rely upon established procedures for responding to allegations of clerical misconduct with adults, or for ensuring that their own brothers can receive the care and healing that they may require.
Homosexual Orientation Versus Pedophilia
Given the publicity about priests who have abused young males, it is understandable that some may be led to assume that a homosexual orientation is more likely to be associated with sexual abuse of a child. But this is an assumption that needs to be challenged. Pedophilia is distinguished by the fact that a person is attracted to a child as an object of sexual desire. It is the age of the child, not the child’s gender, that specifies the disorder. Often pedophiles will abuse children of both genders. Thus, sexual orientation as commonly understood is secondary to the dominance of a disordered attraction to prepubescent children. Pedophiles who are attracted to boys and those who are attracted to girls have more in common with each other than they do with homosexuals and heterosexuals generally.
Why then does it seem that priests who sexually abuse adolescents tend to abuse males?
A somewhat different pattern is evident when the child is an adolescent and postpubescent. An adult’s sexual attraction to an adolescent, referred to as ephebophilia, shows a more decided preference for one gender over the other and, in this limited sense, parallels sexual orientation. Yet it would be unfair to infer from this that gay men who are priests are—because of their sexual orientation—more likely to abuse teenage boys than are heterosexual priests to abuse teenage girls. Here again, it is less the sexual orientation of the individual priest than predisposing factors apart from orientation that determine whether a man will offend against a minor.
Why then does it seem that priests who sexually abuse adolescents tend to abuse males? Part of the answer may be perception—these are the cases that receive the most publicity—and part of the answer may have to do with demographics. Although reliable statistics are hard to come by, anecdotal reports suggest that there is a higher percentage of homosexually oriented individuals in the priesthood than in society generally. If so, then it is reasonable to expect that among those priests who abuse adolescents a higher proportion will be gay, not because gay individuals as such are predisposed to offend, but because there are more gay men in the priesthood. The inclination to abuse a minor proceeds from multiple factors and is only incidentally related to sexual orientation. It would be wrong to exclude a man from holy orders on the basis of sexual orientation alone in an attempt to stem the abuse of children and adolescents.
Wipe Away Every Tear
In the course of my clinical practice, I have treated many individuals who were sexually abused as children and adolescents. Their circumstances differ, and the consequences of the abuse vary. The strength of their character and their willingness to carry on despite sometimes daunting odds testify to their resilience and to the grace of God. Yet though they differ, survivors of sexual abuse commonly pose two questions: Why did this happen? and What can be done to prevent it in the future?
The church would serve honorably by helping to answer these questions. To do so, it must withstand the current glare of media attention, act justly in a litigious climate and resist facile answers even from within its own ranks. It must also be willing to hear unwelcome truths and to act upon them rightly. If it does, then it can lend its enormous intellectual, pastoral and human resources to a concerted search for understanding and a remedy. In doing so, it will help to fulfill for survivors the vision of St. John in the Book of Revelation: God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying out nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.